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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

As groups chafe at pace of criminal justice reform, county administrator points to progress

Local groups, some of which participated in the Spokane March for Racial Justice pictured here, have asked why more progress has not been made in reforming the region’s criminal justice system. Administrator Jacqueline van Wormer said she understood the groups’ frustration but pointed to signs of progress. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s been a year since Spokane County was awarded a $1.75 million MacArthur Foundation grant to reduce its jail population. And while little has visibly changed since then, Jacqueline van Wormer, the county’s criminal justice administrator, wants people to know reforms are moving forward.

In an interview this week, van Wormer responded to criticisms of the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council made during last week’s March for Racial Justice, organized by a coalition of black churches and community groups in Spokane.

Activists criticized the fact that only a small portion of the county’s grant was earmarked for implicit bias training and community outreach, even though the grant is aimed at reducing racial disparities in the jail. The grant budget includes $20,000 for that training and $12,000 for community outreach, van Wormer said.

There’s also been frustration with the slow pace of reforms, said Kurtis Robinson, Spokane NAACP president and a member of the Law And Justice Council’s racial equity group.

“The people that have been suffering under this system at a disparate rate are still suffering under this system while it seems like the system is slow to resolve it,” he said.

Van Wormer said she understands the frustrations. Some come from a misunderstanding of what the grant is for, she said, while others are based on things outside the Law And Justice Council’s control.

So far, the county has implemented a new risk-assessment tool for people awaiting trial. The goal is to release people who don’t pose a safety risk with pretrial monitoring, rather than holding them in jail because they’re too poor to pay a small bond.

It’s too early to gather data on how well that’s working, van Wormer said. And many more substantial changes are waiting on data analysis from the foundation.

That analysis will let the council begin the meaty work of seeing who’s in jail, why and for how long, then design reforms to address those issues.

“It is not overnight. That process will take several years,” she said.

The county now has a contract in place for implicit bias training targeted at prosecutors, public defenders and judges, van Wormer said. Though it’s not part of the grant, she said the city and county are working together to offer the same training to a broader group of city employees.

County data collected in the year before the grant showed black inmates spent eight days longer in jail before trial than the average stay. Hispanic and Latino inmates spent five days longer, on average, and Native Americans four days longer. Those racial groups are also disproportionately represented in jail compared to whites.

The main focus of the grant is reducing the jail population, she said. Targeting racial inequities in the criminal justice system is part of that work but not the focus of the grant.

“I can’t show a direct correlation between offering an implicit bias training and a drawdown in the jail population,” van Wormer said. Much of the work on racial equity will be driven by the data analysis showing who’s in jail.

She took issue with a claim made by Black Lens editor Sandy Williams at the march, questioning whether the MacArthur Foundation would have awarded the grant if they knew only a small portion of the funds were dedicated to racial equity.

“They know exactly how much we’re spending,” she said.

Maurice Classen, Spokane’s grant manager with the MacArthur Foundation, said the county is making good progress on its plan.

“The core of the effort, of the strategy is to reduce the overuse and misuse of jails,” Classen said. Looking just at the amount spent on implicit bias training as an indication of racial equity work is misleading, she said, because racial disparities should be addressed throughout the grant process, in data analysis and the policy changes that come from it.

Spokane’s grant includes a toolkit to make sure policy changes designed to reduce the jail population don’t worsen racial disproportionalities, which has happened in other efforts to reduce youth incarceration or out-of-school suspensions, Classen said.

Another sticking point has been the representation on the council itself. Though addressing the disproportionate number of black, Latino and Native American people in the county jail is a goal, the council making policy recommendations is almost entirely white.

Most of the seats are mandated by state law to go to elected or appointed officials: the county sheriff, the police chief, the jail director, nearly all of whom are white. The council also has three community slots, two of which were filled by people of color. Now, two seats are open and Robinson said there’s been pushback from county commissioners over requests to have them filled by people of color.

“Nothing about us without us,” he said.

County Commissioner Josh Kerns doesn’t sit on the council but said the commissioners were concerned about earmarking seats for any one interest group out of concern that would limit who’s able to serve. He said there was also concern that if one group was guaranteed a seat, other groups would want seats added, making the council large enough that it was ineffective.

“This gives us flexibility,” he said.

He also said the council’s meetings are open to the public and council members take feedback during meetings from community members in attendance.

Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn, who sits on the council and is the primary commissioner working on criminal justice reform, did not respond to multiple calls seeking comment.

Van Wormer said she wants to have input from people of color on the council and will seek out more community input as the county gets its jail data back.

“I don’t have anything to hide. I want this to be a process that works,” she said.